In 1993, when confirmation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) hung in the balance, former President Gerald Ford happened to be in Denver at the same time as President Clinton.
The first man to pardon a former president phoned the sitting president and invited him to a game of golf. "I was afraid this very important piece of legislation would die, so I exerted some gentle pressure to move it ahead." This private diplomacy led to meetings that put the legislation back on track. "I take partial credit for NAFTA going through," says Ford, with no small amount of pride.
The vice president from Grand Rapids, Mich., who took office when President Nixon resigned, is on the road to bring attention to "The American President" (PBS, Sunday through Thursday, April 9-13, check local listings), a broad-ranging examination of the central political institution of American life. Well timed for the spring of an election year, the five-part, 10-hour series addresses five major themes (each program has a different title) of the presidency, profiling all 41 presidents (Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms).
"It's an amazing institution that has weathered many things," says series narrator Hugh Sidey, Time magazine's White House correspondent for 40 years, in a Monitor interview. "While it depends greatly on the personality of the person in the office, at its core it is flexible and it remains the heartbeat of the country."
Mr. Sidey, the author of a Time column called "The Presidency" for more than 30 years, points out that events and personalities conspire to determine the impact of a given politician. "They're not all going to be heroic presidents," he says. "They all have visions, but there are times it doesn't work out the way they intend."
War and other large catastrophes often intervene to either elevate or bring down a president. Character has always played a key role, although not as directly as some would like to believe, says the reporter. "We can have good leadership and a lapse of personal character, although I don't believe a president becomes a great president if there's too severe a lapse of character."
Based on the book by Philip Kunhardt Jr., Philip Kunhardt III, and Peter Kunhardt, the series opens with a two-episode premire of "A Matter of Destiny," which focuses on the power of family ties in the context of a democracy. Several powerful families, including the current Bush father-son duo, have played important roles in the political development of the United States. The series looks at both the dark and bright side of this power. The same show also looks at the role of unforeseen events in determining who will be president.
Nearly 1 in 5 sitting presidents has died in office, thrusting vice presidents into positions for which they were often unprepared. The series asks the question, "What happens when such a man takes office, frequently facing widespread conviction that he is unworthy of the powers he inherits?"
The second installment, "Politics and the Presidency," looks at two important issues of the modern political debate - what is the role of the political party and is an independent cast of mind the best approach to the presidency? The second, says producer Philip Kunhardt III, is a particularly 20th-century issue, namely the rise of the professional politician.
"One of the most interesting things is how the office has grown from tiny origins. In Washington's day there was not a single paid staff member," he says.
Today, says Mr. Kunhardt, the executive workforce numbers 2 million, 2,500 of whom work directly for the president. "In our nation's early years, taking part in political affairs was considered a duty and an honor," adds Sidey, "but not a way of life."
In evening three, "Executive Vision," PBS focuses on those officeholders who have tried to scale down the role of government as well as the power of foreign affairs to determine the historical impact of an American president.
Given that 17 generals have been elected to the highest office in the land, "The Candidate" asks the question, "Are the habits of the military command good preparation for the presidency?" This fourth installment also profiles those who've ascended to the office for the simple political reason that they were the candidate "least likely to lose votes."
The fifth and final evening investigates the issue of the "Expanding Powers" of the American President. "None of the presidents in my time has thought he had enough," points out Sidey. The first television series to profile all 41 presidents, the show takes advantage of extensive archives and all the living presidents. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, PBS features exclusive interviews, including Bill Clinton discussing his impeachment.
Ambitious as this series is, it also serves as a timely history lesson. "The presidency always has been the crossroads through which all the important events of our day run," says Sidey. "It's more important than ever to have the right person in the job."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society